ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that Moscow’s action in Ukraine was intended to stop a “war” that has raged in eastern Ukraine for many years.
Speaking at a meeting with veterans, Putin said Moscow had long sought to negotiate a settlement to the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas, an eastern industrial region where Russia-backed separatists have battled Ukrainian forces since 2014.
“Large-scale combat operations involving heavy weapons, artillery, tanks and aircraft haven’t stopped in Donbas since 2014,” Putin said. “All that we are doing today as part of the special military operation is an attempt to stop this war. This is the meaning of our operation — protecting people who live on those territories.”
Putin insisted again that Russia tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the separatist conflict before sending in troops, and said “we were just duped and cheated.”
He described Ukraine’s east as Russia’s “historic territories,” adding that Moscow conceded their loss after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union but had to act to protect Russian speakers there.
Putin has explained his decision to send troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 by citing a need to protect Russian speakers, as well as to pursue the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine to prevent the neighboring country from posing a threat to Russia. Ukraine and its Western allies have rejected the rationale as a cover for an unprovoked act of aggression.
Putin attended the meeting with veterans during a visit to St. Petersburg for the 80th anniversary of the Red Army breaking the Nazi siege there on Jan. 18, 1943.
The blockade of the city, which was then called Leningrad, lasted nearly 900 days and was only fully lifted in January 1944, marking one of the bloodiest pages of World War II. About 1 million people died in Leningrad during the siege, most of them from starvation.
Putin on Wednesday laid a wreath at the city’s Piskaryov memorial cemetery, where 420,000 civilian victims of the siege and 70,000 Soviet soldiers were buried. He also put flowers in a section where his brother, who died as a child during the siege, was buried in a mass grave.
Putin said once that his mother was declared dead and was about to be taken for burial when his father, who had just come home on a visit from the frontlines, managed to ward off a funeral team at the last moment and helped her recover.
Putin’s father, who was badly wounded in fighting for Leningrad, died in 1999 at the age of 88, and his mother died the previous year aged 86.
Putin on Wednesday also visited a defense factory in St. Petersburg, where he promised workers more social benefits and draft deferments. He said the “courage and heroism of our soldiers” and defense industry efforts would secure Russia’s victory.
Speaking energetically but frequently clearing his throat, Putin said Russia produces three times as many air defense missiles as the United States.